(USATODAY.com) - The Caribbean is not only a mash-up of Old and New World cultures, it's also a mash-up biologically. Indigenous species live side-by-side with animals who floated in from South America or were brought in by Europeans. That can make for some surprises for visitors who stumble across these critters unexpectedly.
Green vervet monkeys arrived in St. Kitts with Africans brought as slaves to work the sugar cane fields. Researchers theorize the monkeys got a taste for the hooch by snacking on fermented cane that was left in the fields after harvest. There's a lot less cane cultivation in St. Kitts nowadays, but, luckily for the monkeys, there are a lot more bars. Like drunks everywhere, they exhibit poor manners, swiping rumrunners and running or pilfering piña coladas poolside. Researchers studying the monkeys found that the ratio of alcoholic monkeys to teetotalers was about the same among the monkeys as it is in human populations. As the saying goes, there's one in every crowd. So what's a vervet monkey's favorite beer? Free beer. What's a vervet monkey's second favorite beer? Free light beer.
Before you go packing garlic in your carry-on, vampire bats are only found in the Caribbean in Trinidad and along the Central American coast. Having said that, they're thirsty little suckers. Fortunately, they're also small — 3 inches long and an ounce and half in weight. Yes, they do attack sleeping mammals (including people) and drink their blood, but because they're so small, they only drink about an ounce of blood at a time. Want to be freaked out? Vampire bats are pretty nimble on the ground, too, hopping and running by using their wings as an extra set of feet. Early Spanish naturalists reported that the Conquistadors in Panama and the Yucatan were attacked by vampire bats. And that name — actually the bat was named for the mythological monster, not the other way around. The Aztecs called them quimich-paplotl, which means butterfly mouse. That's much less threatening.
From the fearsome to the friendly, the solenodon of Hispaniola is a living Furby. This ancient mammal has been around since the time of the dinosaur, is docile and weighs about 2 pounds in adulthood. Its most distinctive feature is a long snout that it uses to dig for insects. The snout is connected to the skull by a ball-and-socket joint that often looks as though it's moving independently of the animal's head. That head contains a pair of oversized eyes and the solenodon waddles rather than walks, making it look like a four-legged Ewok.
Okay, forget about flying vampires, the batfish does have a bat-like face but it can't fly. In fact, it can barely swim. It spends most of its time standing (yes, standing) on the bottom, or walking along using its pectoral fins as legs. You may find one of these slow-moving uglies under a pier, especially on a night dive. So, if it's so slow, how does it eat? It's an anglerfish: small critters are attracted to its lure-like spine and when they move in close to investigate — gulp!
Related to the pelican, the magnificent frigatebird is, well, magnificent. The males have black feathers with an iridescent sheen and a huge inflatable chest pouch that's bright red. Frigatebirds are 3½ feet long, have a wingspan of 8 feet and can fly up to 8,000 feet high for 140 miles at a clip. Despite spending much of their time flying over water, they almost never sit on the surface, staying aloft the whole time. Frigatebirds have the highest wing-area-to-body-mass of any bird, which may explain how they stay up for so long and fly so far. Apparently they can float on the slight thermal currents created by the temperature difference between the tropical ocean and the air above it.
Humans generally fail at anticipating consequences. In the "seemed like a good idea at the time" category: when the Danes came to St. John, they inadvertently brought rats with them. The rats flourished: They had no predators, the plantations produced tons of sugar for them to eat and the weather was way better than back home. The planters, however, were unhappy with the rats' newfound prosperity. What was needed was a predator who would eat the rats. Someone, we don't know who, got the bright idea of importing mongoose from India to eat the rats. One problem: The rats were nocturnal. They slept in the trees during the days when the mongoose were awake and came out at night to keep eating the sugar. The mongoose, meanwhile, spent their days decimating the island's population of birds, lizards and frogs. St. John originally had a rat problem; now it has a mongoose problem. They can be seen foraging around dumpsters and, since they often stand on their hind legs like meerkats, they are kind of cute. One continuing problem has been figuring out the plural of mongoose. While "mongeese" and "mongooses" have been suggested, islanders know the proper plural is "mongoose dem."
The local name of this large frog found on Montserrat is probably a hopeful euphemism referring to the taste. These guys are big — really big. You will not confuse this frog with a coquí. The adults average 8 inches long and weigh 2 pounds. That makes for some mighty meaty frog legs, which are a prized delicacy on Dominica and Montserrat. Unfortunately, the mountain chicken has suffered from overhunting and a fungal infection and it's now considered endangered.
Named for the mane-like spread of feathery fins that fan out from its body, the lionfish is a dangerous interloper that is plaguing the Caribbean. Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific and are very popular with aquarium hobbyists. Although lionfish were occasionally seen in South Florida, possibly released by their owners when they got too big, in the past 10 years their population has literally exploded. Lionfish now infest reefs from Bermuda south throughout the Caribbean. The fish have no predators in the region and are voracious eaters, swallowing anything that moves on the reef. Researchers say that a half-dozen lionfish can depopulate a reef in a matter of weeks. The fish are prolific breeders; a female can produce 2 million eggs per year. If you see a lionfish in the water, do not get too close: the spines are venomous and give a nasty sting. Their only Achilles heel may be this: Lionfish are pretty darn tasty. Divers are now killing lionfish and encouraging restaurants to serve them. If you see lionfish on a menu, order it. And no, it doesn't taste like chicken.
The tayra is a relative of the badger found in the forests of Trinidad where it's known as a high-woods dog or chien bois. These guys aren't dainty: including the tail, they can grow to almost 4 feet long and weigh 11 pounds. High-woods dogs are the tri-athletes of the animal kingdom. They run very fast, swim like otters and climb like monkeys, even jumping from treetop to treetop when chased. They'll eat almost anything — small animals, bird eggs, honey — and are fond of fruit. They've been known to grab green plantains and then stash them for several days until they become ripe and edible. Very clever.
There are no alligators in the Caribbean, but the region does have crocodiles. The American version of the crocodile is found from the Florida Keys south throughout the West Indies includingJamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Grand Cayman. Growing up to 20 feet long and weighing a ton, they're large and in charge. The Cuban crocodile is billed as the fun-sized version, but still get up to 11 feet long and 500 pounds. And apparently there's a bit of Napoleon complex, too: while American crocodiles are relatively chill, Cuban crocodiles are known for being extremely aggressive toward people. The good news is they're confined to a a couple of small areas on Cuba and the Isle of Youth.
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Steve Blount is the former editor of Caribbean Travel & Life, Adventure Travel and Florida Travel & Life.